With cargo ship sinking, Sri Lanka faces one of its worst environmental disasters in decades

WION Web Team
Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, Sri LankaUpdated: Jun 03, 2021, 12:50 PM IST


Story highlights

Sri Lankan officials believe that the ship’s crew has been aware of the nitic acid leak since May 11, some nine days before the first flame

A chemical-laden cargo ship on its way to Singapore caught fire off Sri Lanka and as a result of the burning containers it carried, tonnes of chemicals spilled into the Indian Ocean.

Reportedly, the MV X-Press Pearl caught fire due to a nitric acid leak, on May 20. But Sri Lankan officials believe that the ship’s crew has been aware of the leak since May 11, some nine days before the first flame.

Calling this the country’s worst marine disaster, the Sri Lanka government and Navy have launched a criminal investigation.

According to the Sri Lankan police, the ship’s captain and the chief engineer, along with a third officer were questioned in an official investigation, and their passports impounded.

The ship that burned for 13 days before finally being extinguished, was carrying 1,486 containers filled with chemicals, including 25 metric tonnes of nitric acid.

In a statement, Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) said that the resulting microplastic pollution from the ship’s burning and consequent sinking could cause years of ecological damage to the Indian Ocean island. Waves of plastic waste have been washing up onto the shore for days, with navy sailors being deployed to clean the beaches of the plastic pellets.


"This is like the coronavirus, no end in sight,"said, Sailor Manjula Dulanjala, while speaking to AFP. "We removed all the plastic yesterday, only to see more of it dumped by the waves overnight."

While after days of strenuous efforts the flames on the container ship have been extinguished, authorities now face an even bigger problem. Attempting to protect marine ecosystems from what could very well be the biggest environmental disasters in decades, authorities have been attempting to tug the sinking ship further out to the sea as 350 tonnes of oil in its fuel tanks and 50 metric tonnes of gasoline threaten to leak into the Indian Ocean.

"The stern of the ship is underwater, the water level is above the deck," said navy spokesperson Indika de Silva. "The ship will be towed as further away from the coast as possible before it goes down completely."


The ship is currently sinking in an area rich in fish. Due to the oil leak and the looming disaster, the government had to suspend fishing along a 50 mile stretch of coastline, a move that is greatly impacting the fishing community in the area.  

With thousands of families engaged in fishing, a primary career here, their trade has taken a massive hit as a result of the incident.

"The ship has dealt a death blow to our lives. We can't go into the sea, which means we can't make a living.", said Joshua Anthony, head of a region fishing union.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sought help from Australia in evaluating the environmental damage.

"This is probably the worst beach pollution in our history," MEPA Chairman Dharshani Lahandapura said in a statement.